Community activist William Alston-El outside of the former Parkway Guest House, 1262 Talbert Street SE. Photos by the author.

Two people died in a fire last week in a vacant low-rise apartment building in Fairlawn. Meanwhile, Mayor Gray pledged $100 million towards new affordable housing. The two together present a clarion call for solutions to the housing problems east of the Anacostia River.

"Marion Barry told Gray the only way he’s going to get re-elected, if the Feds don’t get him first, is if he plays that affordable housing game,” said community activist William Alston-El. “But it ain’t a game, it’s a matter of life and death. His pledge is too late for them two. [Mayor Gray] needs to come out to the neighborhood and see how people on the lower level are living.”

Over the past year, Alston-El and I have toured the Anacocostia neighborhood’s extensive portfolio of abandominiums. As dangerous as guns, HIV/AIDS, alcohol, and drugs, the accessibility of vacant properties is a public health concern.

What happened at 1704 R Street SE?

Anacostia High School just down the way, a group of women sit with a child on the front stoop of 1706 R Street SE, next door to the boarded-up middle row building, 1704 R Street SE, where a two-alarm fire took the lives of 2 squatters days before. Yellow tape surrounds the scene. Police cruisers idle across the street as we walk by acknowledging their presence.

Front of 1704 R Street SE in Fairlawn, the scene of the deadly fire.

The smell of smoke and burnt wood is still thick in the air. “It smells like death out here,” Alston-El says before explaining his connection to one of the deceased; he boxed with her brother while imprisoned in Lorton. “There aren’t too many Toogoods around.” We walk around to the alley to investigate.

A large sandy colored cat bounds over a backyard fence and suddenly stops, plopping down in the charred remnants in the rear of 1704 R Street SE. “Get away from here,” yells an onsite fire restoration specialist as the feline scurries away. He approaches us and asks our credentials, “We’re reporters looking for the truth,” Alston-El offers.

Rear of 1704 R Street SE.

At that the man who says he’s been “standing next to dead bodies for 10 hours,” begins to tell us the circumstances he knows.

"All indications are that the four-apartment building had been modified by the people who had been living here without permission,” he says. “The bottom right dwelling, how you got into it, before the fire, was you opened the door but someone took a piece of plywood and sheeted that off from the inside probably for their own protection against someone injuring them while they were sleeping. That became the cause of death.

"When the fire started in this room here, in the back right, and I mean right because everything in construction is discussed facing the front of the building, so when it started in the back right and really started to spread it’s really very difficult for the human mind to run through 1,400 degrees.”

I ask if the cause of fire is known. “No, that’s under investigation. So they didn’t have a way out and were overcome by smoke. Passed out. There was no skin injury when we found them they just suffocated from lack of oxygen. The entire inside of the building is 100% unstable. My job is to structurally support the building so they can do an investigation to answer the question you just asked which is, ‘How did it start?’”

Reports from the DC Fire Department corroborate the restorationist’s details. “After the heavy volume of fire was knocked down, units re-entered the building, where they located two civilian fatalities. Two firefighters were hurt in the early stages of the firefight and taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.”

According to Alston-El, Toogood was an alcoholic with a bad leg and had been living in the abandominium for three years. “No wonder she didn’t make it out. Somebody was firing up their drugs, something went wrong and they dipped out leaving that fire behind.”

Police have been canvassing the neighborhood seeking information and any eyewitness accounts of a third party fleeing the blaze.

With a housing crisis, buildings should not remain vacant

Mayor Gray made it a priority in his State of the District address to provide more affordable housing. One place to start is to push for action on existing abandoned buildings the city already owns, or where bureaucratic hurdles are blocking owners’ progress.

Take the sprawling Bruxton abandominiums at 1700-1720 W Street SE, still owned by the “DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA SUITE 317” according to tax records. A sign from the Department of Housing and Community Development announces “No Trespassing or Dumping.”

City-owned abandominiums, 1700-1720 W Street SE.

In separate colors someone from the neighborhood has spray painted “FUCK” “CRuddy” just beneath the sign. The winter has slowed the ivy’s growth which has begun to cover the banner advertising “spacious” 2 bedroom / 2 bath homes “coming soon.”

The District has given affordable housing developer Manna the rights to redevelop the Bruxton, but it remains boarded-up and vacant to this day. A Manna staff member commented in March of last year:

SE Manna, Inc. is committed to making this property part of a vibrant Anacostia community. Manna was awarded the property in 2009 through the District’s PADD program and began developing the property as the Buxton Condominium. Along the way, Manna has invested over $300,000 in pre-development costs and has encountered several “speed bumps” those in the affordable housing field would be very familiar with, including:

  • Permitting issues dues to lack of water availability;
  • The District’s Department of Housing and Community Development terminated our contract on the building, though we were in compliance with all terms. This decision was reversed through the intervention of Mayor Gray, Deputy Mayor Hoskins and DHCD Dir. John Hall;
  • The units were originally priced from $170,000-$205,000. Manna soon realized that the market in this neighborhood could not bear that price, applied and received funding through the Neighborhood Stabilization Program to reduce prices to $95,000-$140,000.

Manna is currently in compliance with all terms required by DHCD and its private lender, including 9 units pre-sold. The Buxton is awaiting DHCD approval to move forward and we are eager to begin this project, and continue to market the available units to qualified buyers.

City needs help reporting abandominiums

Although the city owns its share of abandominiums or has initiated the long and involved litigious process of getting vacant or blighted properties back into productive use, the greatest number of abandominiums are held by tax delinquents, absentee owners, or dissolved companies.

"Because these vacant properties are privately owned, we are bound by very tight statute on what we can reasonably do,” said head of the DC Office of Consumer and Regulatory Afair’s Vacant Building Enforcement Division, Reuben Pemberton, respected in Anacostia for his responsiveness and attendance at civic meetings.

Pemberton works with 4 investigators. In order to classify a property as vacant or blighted it has to have two inspections.

"We have a lot of eyes out there in the neighborhood. People can send us an email at vacantbuildings@dc.gov or call 202-442-4332 to report a property,” Pemberton said. DCRA’s Vacant Building Enforcement division performed more than 4,200 inspections in fiscal year 2012 and is on schedule to do more than 5,000 this year.